Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Europe's GM battles
This rabbit could lead to a cure for Pompe's disease
By BBC correspondent Shirin Wheeler in Brussels
In a small laboratory in the Belgian town of Geel, a rabbit is strapped into a canvas sling. The research assistant attaches rubber teats to the animal and switches on the milking machine.
Maryse Schoneveld van der Linde is desperate for a breakthrough. A therapist visits once a week to ease her aching muscles. She needs a wheelchair and a ventilator to help her breathe at night.
"Instead of making my life bigger, my world is closing down until it gets to the point that I'll just have to lie down," she says. "Now, I have hope - that I can live my life like others and realise my dreams and do what I want to do."
At Pharming's research centre in Belgium, they are looking at how engineered genes could help treat dozens of inherited diseases. Like companies using biotechnology in food and agriculture, this Dutch company has had to confront deep public mistrust.
Admitting to the risks
Pharming's Rein Strijker, in charge of the development of treatments for sufferers of rare diseases, says the industry must avoid preaching.
But as far as biotechnology in food is concerned, it is the perceived risks that have dominated the headlines in Europe. So far, the industry has failed spectacularly to communicate the benefits of GM products to Europe's consumers. In the UK, the newspapers refer to Frankenstein foods, and supermarket chains have been racing to take them off their shelves.
But this is not solely a British phobia. In Sweden, the farmers union will not even feed animals GM food. Rolf Erikson from the Union's Brussels office says they have little choice.
Resistance of consumers
In hindsight, Paul Muys of the European Association for Bioindustries says the sector underestimated the resistance of consumers already jaded by recent food scares like the "mad cow" crisis.
"Things were further complicated by the tragedies - let's call them tragedies - of the BSE crisis and the dioxin contamination scare in Belgium. Food crisis after food crisis which had nothing to do with biotechnology but which made people very suspicious of any development that affected their food.
"I have the idea that [biotechnologists] were trying to hide it - trying to put their products in the European market so that it would be too late to do anything about it," he says. "There has never been any discussion."
Consumers are making their anxieties known. A recent referendum in Austria showed a quarter of voters mistrusted biotechnology - Austria, France, Spain and Luxembourg have all imposed bans on certain GM crops.
And torn between the need to win public approval and defend new technologies, Europe's governments are not giving a clear lead either. Until they do, few people will openly embrace the new science.